Legislative update

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This week’s action was highlighted by a visit from President Donald Trump who delivered remarks at The Hermitage in Nashville recognizing the 250th birthday of President Andrew Jackson, before holding a large rally at the Municipal Auditorium where he talked about reducing taxes, bringing back jobs, and repealing and replacing Obamacare.

President Trump and the Hermitage’s Andrew Jackson Foundation graciously extended invitations to state legislators to join the president at the Hermitage. Lt. Governor Randy McNally and House Speaker Beth Harwell cancelled afternoon committee meetings Wednesday so that roughly 100 of the 132 members of the General Assembly could attend.

Trump arrived at the Hermitage in the late afternoon, took a brief tour of the Hermitage and then laid a wreath at the grave of President Jackson. Calling it an “inspirational visit,” President Trump gave a brief address to the intimate gathering. The speechfocused on President Jackson’s life, sacrifices and rise to power. Calling Jackson a “military hero and genius” as well as a “flawed man,” Trump noted various parallels between himself and the seventh President. Trump especially identified with Jackson’s defiance of “an arrogant elite” that often questioned his legitimacy.

Senate Transportation amends IMPROVE Act with an overall tax cut

An improved version of Governor Bill Haslam’s Improving Manufacturing, Public Roads and Opportunities for a Vibrant Economy (IMPROVE Act) advanced in the Senate Transportation and Safety Committee this week with several significant tax cuts added by the committee. This includes a 20 percent reduction in the food tax. The move to reduce the food tax from five to four percent is designed to help Tennesseans “save more at the store than they pay at the pump.”

The purpose of the IMPROVE Act is to rebuild a safe and reliable transportation network, while reallocating revenues to maximize taxpayer’s return on that investment. While one category, the gas tax, increases, it would be more than offset by the widespread cuts that most people pay for other necessities.

Senate Bill 1221, as amended, reduces the governor’s proposed increase from 7 to 6 cents on a gallon of gas and from 12 to 10 cents on a gallon of diesel, phasing them in over a three-year period. Other improvements made in the Senate bill include:

  • Removal of the provision to index the tax to adjust for inflation;
  • Removal of the proposed surcharge on rental cars; and,
  • Addition of more property tax relief for veterans and the elderly/disabled by moving the property value threshold from $100,000 to $135,100 for veterans and from $23,500 to $27,000 for the elderly/disabled, adjusting for inflation in future years.

The legislation maintains the governor’s proposal to make Tennessee’s franchise and excise (F&E) tax on manufacturing business more competitive by allowing companies to go to a single weighted sales factor. This provision aims to attract new and better paying manufacturing jobs to Tennessee which currently has higher F&E taxes than some neighboring states. It also provides for a one percent reduction in the Hall Income Tax.

The legislation continues the state’s long-time reliance on user fees rather than sales taxes to fund highway improvements. Tennessee does not use debt financing, tolls, or general fund revenues to fund roads. This pay-as-you-go practice has been credited as one of the reasons for the state’s top financial rankings and is especially important due to the instability of federal transportation funds over the past decade.

Tennessee has approximately 11,000 local roads, 40 percent of which are over 50 years old. Likewise, there are 8,000 state bridges in which 40 percent are over 40 years old. The aged bridges are causing significant safety concerns, as some are unsafe for the travel of heavy equipment, including fire trucks, ambulances and vehicles used in farming.

The legislation lists 962 projects identified by the governor as priorities. It includes 45 projects to improve interstates, 89 projects to improve road access in rural communities, 51 projects geared toward creating economic opportunities and 724 total bridge replacements.

The governor’s proposal would mean $70 million annually in increased revenue for county road projects in Tennessee and $35 million for cities.  The bill now moves to the Senate State and Local Government Committee for consideration.

In other action this week, legislation was approved by the full Senate to help encourage the growing and selling of Tennessee-based agricultural products. Senate Bill 1187 exempts small food manufacturers, or domestic kitchens, from licensing and inspection if they meet certain criteria. It includes kitchens which have no full-time regular employees and who sell direct retail products which are properly labeled and are non-hazardous.

The “eat locally produced food” movement has encouraged many individuals to produce food items that were not economically feasible previously. The businesses affected are typically very small start-up companies that would be encouraged to grow without unnecessary fees. 

In Brief…

Good Samaritans / Move Over Law — The Senate voted to extend Tennessee’s “Move Over Law” to include good Samaritans who stop to help a distressed motorist and are displaying their flashing lights to indicate an emergency. Tennessee law requires motorists to move over into the adjacent lane of traffic, when safe to do so, or alternatively to slow down for emergency vehicles and utility service equipment.   Senate Bill 964 comes after a 16-year-old Tennessean was found 70 percent liable for damage done to his automobile which was struck on the side of the road as he was aiding a motorist in dire need of assistance. His car was deemed as being illegally parked. It is hoped that this legislation will continue to encourage good Samaritans to assist in such emergency situations, while directing other motorists to move over for the protection of all concerned.

Cannabinioid Oil — Unanimous approval was given by the full Senate to legislation that excludes from the definition of marijuana a cannabidiol product which is approved as a prescription medication by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (USDA). Tennessee law defines marijuana broadly to include all parts of the cannibas plant and any derivatives, even though oil and hemp are exempted.   Unlike the main psychoactive cannabinoid in marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabinioid oil does not produce euphoria or intoxication. Senate Bill 385, which I am the sponsor of, ensures that USDA-approved medications containing cannabidiol oil, which are used for a variety of medical conditions such as epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and certain mental health disorders, are allowed under Tennessee law.

Wildfires / Disasters / Property Tax Relief— Legislation designed to give victims of the wildfires and tornadoes which ravaged Tennessee this fall a measure of property tax relief was passed unanimously by the General Assembly.  Senate Bill 114 allows a local governing body, by a two-thirds vote, to provide tax relief on real and personal property damaged by the wildfire. The tax relief bill is modeled after similar legislation which granted tax relief to victims of the 2010 floods in Nashville.  The legislation calls for prorating the 2016 tax assessment for a homeowner’s real property or business owner’s personal property, if the property was damaged by 50 percent or more in a disaster certified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) between September 1 and December 30, 2016.  The legislation is retroactive to January 1, 2016. The bill now goes to the Governor for his signature.

Wildfires / Clean-up – Similarly, the Senate approved Senate Bill 964 which gives local governments the authority to go on private property at the request of the property owner to clean up debris caused by a natural disaster.  The clean-up bill would help Gatlinburg get reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for removing debris on private residential property that is not low income, elderly or disabled, like those in which the owners live out-of-state.  

Provider Stability Act — Legislation which seeks to provide greater transparency between healthcare providers and health insurance payers was approved by the Senate. Senate Bill 437 also limits fee schedule changes to once a year. Under the bill, insurers must provide 60-day notice of a material change in the insurance carrier’s provider manual reimbursement rule or policy, and a 90-day notice of any change to health provider’s fee schedule. The legislation requires insurance companies to identify and provide notice of any change they make to the provider’s fee schedule, including the effective date.  The bill would give health care providers more financial predictability and stability in their business.

Retired Teachers / Substitute Teachers — The Senate has approved Senate Bill 379 which guarantees a teacher without an active license that has retired within the last five years, is eligible for the same rate of pay as retired teachers that have maintained their licenses.  The goal of legislation is to address the need for short-term substitute teachers who are highly qualified by giving an incentive for retired teachers to go back into the substitute teacher pool, even if they have not renewed their licenses. 

Body Cams / Law Enforcement Officers – Legislation was given final approval by the Senate which seeks to set the right balance between privacy and transparency in public access of body camera (cam) footage taken by law enforcement officers. Body cams are becoming more common, which has brought the need for clarity regarding public access to footage.   Senate Bill 442creates exceptions to the public records request law when the footage involves minors at an elementary, middle or high school; when the body cam was filmed inside a hospital or medical facility that provides healthcare or mental healthcare; or when it is obtained in a private residence that is not being investigated as a crime scene. It would further provide that nothing would prevent the information from being used in criminal proceedings by a District Attorney or an Attorney General or defense counsel. It would also ensure access to the footage by law enforcement courts or other governmental agencies.

Drivers License / Underage Drinking – Legislation has received final Senate approval that requires all new drivers’ licenses issued to persons under the age of 21 in Tennessee be printed in a vertical format to help businesses easily identify those who cannot drink alcohol. I was pleased to sponsor Senate Bill 384 which would give drivers the option to change their license to horizontal upon turning age 21 for the reduced cost of a duplicate license. Presently, a tiny red bar along the side of the photo on the license indicates a person is under the age of 21. In 2016, there were 28 traffic fatalities in Tennessee with youth aged 15 to 20 years old measuring a blood alcohol level greater than .01 percent. Reports also indicate that the percentage of young Tennesseans ages 12 to 20 who consumed alcohol in the past month was almost 17 percent. More than two-thirds of the states across the nation have vertical licenses for drivers under the age of 21.

Veterans / Employment – The full Senate approved and sent to Governor Bill Haslam a bill which provides protections to employers if they give hiring preference to honorably discharged veterans, their spouses, in certain cases, or survivors. It includes spouses of a veteran with a service-connected disability, unremarried widows or widowers of a veteran who died of a service-connected disability, and unremarried widows or widowers of a member of the military who died in the line of duty. Senate Bill 209 gives companies that would like to give special consideration for hiring veterans because of their unique skill sets, proven work ethic, and reliability but may be hesitant to do so out of concern of being sued under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII, Section 11 of the Civil Rights Act contains a carve-out that exempts veterans’ preference processes that are authorized by state statute.  

Veterans / Yellow DOT Program — Legislation has received final Senate approval that extends the state’s Yellow DOT Program to include veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD). The Yellow DOT Program is designed to provide first responders with an individual’s medical information in the event of an emergency on Tennessee’s roadways. Senate Bill 1304 calls for including veterans, should they choose to opt in, to inform the police officers and other responders of a potential medical situation due to PTSD.  It also authorizes TDOT to publicize the Yellow Dot Program in conjunction with the Department of Veterans Services and agencies providing services to veterans.  

Schools / Opioid Antagonist — The full Senate approved Senate Bill 458 that requires the State Board of Education to develop guidelines to help ensure that every public school in the state has an opioid antagonist on hand to counteract a life-threatening opioid drug overdose by a student. The legislation also requires each local education agency implement a plan based on those guidelines. Schools would then be authorized to purchase two doses if the medication is not available through donation. The opioid antagonist, Naloxone, is sold under the brand name Narcan among others, and is a safe medication used to block the effects of opioids, especially in overdose.